Yes, Jack McDevitt has pounded out a bit of a stinker here. I agree with most of the criticisms of this book: that it moves too slowly, that Hutch is consigned to a tertiary role, that it is too contrived in places, that McAllister resembles Alex Benedict too closely for proper series decorum...but I'm not going to pounce too quickly until I see how "Cauldron" turns out. And here's why:
For a first-time reader of Jack McDevitt, "Odyssey" would have been quite a let down, but for those who have followed the series since its inception, "Odyssey" wasn't really that bad. I have enjoyed everything I have read by Jack McDevitt, and so I have confidence in his ability to turn this around. It seems that there is always a transitional book in any long-running series, a book that doesn't have the same immediacy and weight of the previous books (think "At All Costs", David Weber), and we can hope that this is the case with the Priscilla Hutchins series.
McDevitt is trying to air out some legitimate concerns about human nature; our species' inability to remain focused upon long-term goals where instead we seem always to fall back upon self-serving hedonism and mysticism. The space agencies in the Priscilla Hutchins stories have actually saved the Earth, have discovered incredible wonders on distant planets--have laid bare a potential galactic threat exacerbated by ignorance, and yet people have returned their attentions to the silly and ludicrous. Those who are more far-seeing find themselves at odds with public attention and resort to manipulation and deflection to achieve their goals. There are real-world analogies: close-passing asteroids and the sure odds that one will hit us sooner or later, and yet NASA is sidelined into a menial agency, under funded and little appreciated. People debate religion while the Earth heats up, remain complaisant during a war defined as never ending, and allow media outlets to serve up emotionally distressed pop-culture stars instead.
McDevitt is arguing for rationality; this is why a central character is Greek, why there are references to Plato, and a condemnation of the hoi polloi in all but name. But skepticism is also essential--McAllister's character is a virtual Skeptics Society, slashing at frauds manufactured by well-meaning scientists and officials as well as those propagated by irrational belief. If Jack McDevitt is trying to turn from space opera toward deeper themes, I will give him that chance.